Like most kids born at the start of the millennium, video games acted as my live-in nanny. I learned to read with a clunky old LeapPad tablet, which, if I still had today, would be caked in a sticky goo that always seems to exist on the grubby hands of toddlers. I honed my hand-eye coordination as I internalized crushing defeat by Matt, the overpowered CPU in “Wii Sports.” I spent hours in the school computer lab serving customers in the food-service simulator “Papa’s Pizzeria.” My idle mind never went very far as long as I could beat my Rainbow Road record on “Mario Kart” or speedrun an island of “Poptropica.”
I can’t help but imagine how things would have been different if my brain’s development was supplemented with today’s video games, more specifically, the crowd-pleasing cultural phenomenon that is “Fortnite.” Fortnite is a first-person shooter with a sparkly, cartoonish twist, but it is also a concert venue, a chat room, a battle-royale stadium and its very own multiverse. Somehow, under layers of whimsical depictions of violence, fantastical costumes and a detailed map is a nexus of pop culture.
I’ve been trying to figure out how a game like Fortnite is able to have such a tight grasp on entertainment industry giants since its earliest collaboration deals were made. The idea that the same game that programmed a TikTok dance to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” into its character emotes has creative liberties with parts of the John Wick franchise is bizarre, if not borderline dystopian.
Maybe I am too cynical to recognize that not every game is designed to my taste — to me, Fortnite is a place for kids to scream at each other from across the world and force virtual Keanu Reeves to floss. Alas, as much as it hurts, it’s important to recognize Fortnite for what it is: a monumental asset to both the gaming industry and the world of pop culture.
Fortnite is the accumulation of everything gaming has managed to improve upon in the last two decades. Cross-platform play, like that of “Minecraft’s” Xbox, Pocket Edition and PC versions, offers accessibility across players. Wireless communication popularized by the likes of “Call of Duty” and “Roblox” adds another level of stimulation and interactivity for children and teens alike.
Fortnite takes advantage of both of these qualities and adds the third, most important element to the bunch: in-game purchases. Any regular person can play Fortnite, but the way to show prestige and expertise is with the trappings of professional, purchased costumes and dances with freshly minted V-bucks. In 2019, these microtransactions added $1.8 billion to Epic Games’s revenue.
And Fortnite’s player base did not materialize out of thin air — its popularity has exploded in recent years, and this has only been accelerated by the pandemic. As a result of strict social-distancing policies, playing “Fortnite” over voice or video chat with school buddies may very well be the most stimulating form of social interaction available to most e-kids. For a parent to deny their children these lifelines could be seen as unfair, even cruel, especially considering that the game itself is free (excluding in-application purchases).
Thus, the nature of Fortnite’s success is really not enigmatic at all. What was already a wildly popular game is now bolstered by such a high increase in demand that, for kids deprived of crucial social stimulation, Fortnite is somewhat of a necessity. Where the majority of kids with their parents’ credit cards go, businesses will follow, allowing “Fortnite” to create a metaverse of intellectual properties that could be the first of its kind.
Upon examination of every cultural medium that Fortnite ties together, from the NFL to popular DJs Marshmello and Major Lazer, TV shows like “The Walking Dead” and a wide collection of films, I find it almost reassuring that the game is able to introduce younger audiences to different forms of art and pop culture.
With so many brands eager to wedge themselves into Fortnite, Epic Games may be on its way to turning the game into an overstimulating post-capitalist hellscape. However, the game could be worse. At the very least, it keeps pop culture relics that are at risk of fading into irrelevance at the forefront of the video game industry. The possibility that Fortnite could be a kid’s first introduction to Sigourney Weaver’s character in “Alien” and the “Terminator” franchise is pretty strange, but at least it’s something.
Of course, like anything fun and stimulating, playing the game comes with a risk — disillusioned parents have complained of crippling Fortnite addictions affecting their children. Maybe we will see a future where Fortnite does more harm than good, but right now, it’s a momentous force that’s worth keeping an eye on.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.